Discursive Practice


Discursive practice addresses the processes by which cultural meanings are produced and understood. This approach offers a distinctive perspective on linguistic anthropology as well as cultural anthropology as a whole. It subsumes, but extends well beyond, the traditional field of linguistic anthropology and is central to contemporary cultural anthropology, especially its concern with ethnographic methods. The key objective of a discursive practice approach is to develop theories and techniques relevant to the analysis of meaningful behavior in actual situations. Discursively oriented anthropology emphasizes linguistic, semantic, and interactional aspects of culture as well as extralinguistic discourse modalities. It treats the full range of social forms and practices in terms of how they are discursively produced and understood.

The discursive practice approach is grounded in four insights concerning discourse. One is the affirmation that social realities are linguistically/discursively constructed. The second is the appreciation of the context-bound nature of discourse. The third is the idea of discourse as social action. The fourth is the understanding that meaning is negotiated in interaction, rather than being present once-and-for-all in our utterances.

The basis of a discursive practice approach is the insistence that discourse is action and not merely representation. The analyst must attend constantly to what is being accomplished through the discourse. So, for example, proverbs are treated not as general bits of cultural wisdom, but as resources available for use in certain situations. The object of study, then, is the proverb-as-uttered-in-context. The question is not merely "What do proverbs say?" but "How are proverbs used?", although there is a recognition that what they say is part of how they are used. As with proverbs, so with culture generally--culture is viewed as a resource that society's members have available to them, a way of creating meaning and accomplishing activities, not as a cause of members' actions or a good-for-all-purposes representation of the world. Cultural knowledge tends to be ambiguous, flexible, and negotiable.

A signature move in a discursive practice approach is to "bracket" such matters as mind, truth, reality, morality, and common sense (both the native's and our own), including common sense about culture itself.

Instead of focusing on how things "really" are or should be, we attend to how truth and morality are established, negotiated, maintained, and challenged in discourse. So, for example, the question of whether morality is absolute or culturally relative is put aside in favor of an analysis of how morality is invoked and negotiated in discourse.

In general, a discursively oriented anthropologist studies as topics of inquiry whatever participants use as resources, seeking to discover how social activities are organized and brought off.

The DP approach is consistent with standard anthropological practice in several ways:

1. Methodologically, it depends on observation (and, when possible, mechanical recording), rather than surveys, questionnaires, or experiments. It also reconsiders the usual ethnographic reliance on interviews of informants, concentrating on events in naturally occurring contexts. Conversations with informants remain a source of possible insight, but are not treated as a definitive source of knowledge concerning the topics discussed. Just as we can speak without knowing how to describe our grammar, so can someone be a competent member of a culture without knowing precisely how its social life is organized.

2. It treats common sense as a topic for analysis rather than a taken-for-granted analyst's resource. For the ethnographer, this is something of a necessity, since the native's common sense may not accord with the ethnographer's. The difference in a discursive practice approach, if any, is that the suspension of the ethnographer's common sense and the investigation of the native's is more conscious and thoroughgoing.

3. The discursive practice approach can be seen as a further development of "emic" anthropology, that is, ethnographic description in terms of native categories. The extension consists in the move from abstract and fixed cultural categories to actual, situated activity. The concern in both cases is with cultural members' categories and concerns, rather than with the analyst's theoretical or ideological preoccupations. The attempt is to understand the member's world in its own terms. Rather than creating categories (which can then be entered into a quantitative analysis), the analyst of discursive practices observes what categories natives employ, how those categories are used, and how it is decided which items are members of which categories on specific occasions. Anthropology has focused on describing the system of categories that a culture uses to organize the world, but has largely neglected to show how those categories are actually used in social action and how items are assigned to categories.

The discursive practice approach, as we conceive it, includes the study of both code (culture) and use. Since discourse is constructive of social action and reality, the study of the social and linguistic constraints on discourse itself is central.

Anthropology has a tradition of interest in linguistic constraints on discourse and understanding at least since Boas and, more especially, Whorf. Other constraints on discourse are of a more structural and historical nature. These include asymmetrical access to cultural capital, the limits of technological resources within particular societies, as well as stylistic and conceptual conventions that limit the acceptability and apparent veracity of cultural practices.

Required courses for a discursive practice specialization are:

Anthropology 601: Ethnology
Anthropology 602: Linguistic Anthropology
Anthropology 605: Discursive Practices

In addition, students will be expected to take at least three courses from the discursive practices list. These include courses dealing with discursive approaches to language and interaction, religion and medicine, ritual and performance, political economy, media, law, and collective memory.

Discursive Practice Faculty within Anthropology

Andrew Arno (law and conflict, communication and culture, media anthropology, Pacific Islands) <aarno@hawaii.edu>

Jack Bilmes (linguistic anthropology, microanalysis of verbal interaction, discourse theory, the Market as culture, Southeast Asia) <bilmes@hawaii.edu>

Fred Blake (ideology, written inscriptions, popular religion, China and Chinese diaspora) <fblake@hawaii.edu>

Gregory Maskarinec (The uses of discouse in the religions, medical systems, and cultures of the Himalayas and South Asia, linguistic anthropology, contemporary ethnographic writing and ethnological theory from a discursive (post-Wittgensteinian) point of view, ethnomethodology) <gregorym@hawaii.edu>

Geoffrey White (cognitive anthropology, self narrative, historical discourse, conflict talk, Pacific Islands) <white@hawaii.edu>

Christine Yano (performance theory, media anthropology, popular culture, Japan) <cryano@hawaii.edu>

We have special strengths (two or more faculty members in the Anthropology Department) in discursive approaches to mass media, conflict and negotiation, and religion, and in discourse theory.

Discursive Practice Faculty from outside Anthropology

Haruko Cook (East Asian Languages and Literature)
Gabrielle Kasper (Second Language Studies)
Christina Higgins (Second Language Studies)
Albert Robillard (Sociology)
Richard Schmidt (Second Language Studies)
Michael Shapiro (Political Science)
Benjamin Bergen (Linguistics)
Dina Yoshimi (East Asian Languages and Literature)

A special subtrack of the Discursive Practice specialization is linguistic anthropology. Since this is, in itself, a major field of anthropology, our program and resources in this area are described below in some detail.

Linguistic Anthropology

Linguistic anthropology is one of the traditional four subfields of anthropology. Among the questions addressed by linguistic anthropology are the following:

- How does language reflect culture as a whole (bearing in mind that language is a part of culture)?
- How does language affect culture and thought?
- How is language used as a part of social life?
- How do speech practices vary across cultures?
- How does language socialization vary across cultures?
- Are there linguistic universals?

The linguistic anthropology courses, as taught in the UH Mānoa Anthropology Department, attempt to examine these questions, as well as dealing with other traditional themes of linguistic anthropology.

Linguistic Anthropology Faculty

Andrew Arno, Dept. of Anthropology (Law and conflict, Communication and culture, Media anthropology, Pacific Islands)

Jack Bilmes, Dept. of Anthropology, who teaches the graduate courses in linguistic anthropology (Linguistic anthropology, Microanalysis of verbal interaction, Discourse theory, The Market as culture, Southeast Asia)

Gregory Maskarinec, Dept. of Anthropology (The uses of discouse in the religions, Medical systems, and cultures of the Himalayas and South Asia, Linguistic anthropology, Contemporary ethnographic writing and ethnological theory from a discursive [post-Wittgensteinian] point of view, Ethnomethodology)

Geoffrey White, Dept. of Anthropology (Cognitive anthropology, Self narrative, Historical discourse, Conflict talk, Pacific Islands)

Robert Blust, Dept. of Linguistics (Historical linguistics, Austronesian)
Haruko Cook, Dept. of East Asian Languages and Literature (Japanese sociolinguistics and pragmatics)

Benjamin Bergen (Linguistics)

Gary Fontaine, Dept. of Communication (Intercultural communication)

Michael Forman, Dept. of Linguistics, who sometimes teaches the undergraduate course in linguistic anthropology (Ethnographic linguistics, Philippines)

Christina Higgins (Second Language Studies)

Gabrielle Kasper, Dept. of English as a Second Language (Cross-cultural pragmatics)

Katsue Reynolds, Dept. of East Asian Languages and Literature (Japanese sociolinguistics)

Albert Robillard, Dept. of Sociology (Ethnomethodology)

Richard Schmidt, Dept. of English as a Second Language (Sociolinguistics)

The Anthropology Department offers the following courses:

Anthropology/Linguistics 414--Linguistic Anthropology.
Anthropology 420--Communication and Culture.
Anthropology 421--Anthropology and the Mass Media
Anthropology 602--Linguistic Anthropology.

Graduate seminars on microanalysis of verbal interaction, on research methods, and on ethnographic writing. Other departments offer a wide variety of courses in linguistics, comparative linguistics, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, linguistic pragmatics, field methods, etc.